April 5, 2008

Music v. Noise Part 1

The idea that composers would produce music expressly to irritate and annoy audiences is generally a 20th century one. Whether consisting of the production of organized or disorganized noise, pure silence, or something in between, the plain objective of several practitioners was to aggravate and irritate. Many celebrated early 20th century works have had the effect of annoying audiences. The twelve-tone compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, for example, likely continue to irritate concert-going audiences to this day. The notorious riot at the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) in 1913 is probably the most celebrated example of widespread annoyance with a large-scale musical work.

But it was not Stravinsky's express intent to cause such a ruckus; indeed, he was rather pained at the reaction, and in fact within a week of the premiere was hospitalized with typhoid fever. Nor was Schoenberg's motivation that of intentionally alienating listeners, but rather to discover a new tonal landscape with which to express deep emotional content.

Yet the notion of a composer writing music to intentionally irritate his listeners may be traced at least to the late 18th century. As the story goes, Joseph Haydn wrote the opening movement of his Symphony No. 94 in G major, the "Surprise" Symphony, and its abrupt, unheralded dominant chord fortissimo, with the intention of waking the easily distracted among the powdered wig set that might be caught napping during his concerts.

But no one really began systematically attempting to irritate listeners until just prior to World War I and the emergence in Italy of what was primarily an artistic and literary movement called Futurism. However, unlike another European artistic movement often invoked to describe contemporary musical endeavors, Impressionism, the Futurists did in fact include among their ranks actual composers.

Italian Futurism essentially arose amid the culmination of a century of heavy industrial development, a European social revolution by turns despotic, socialist, and anarchic, and several decades of Italian military adventurism in Africa. Also, the latest discoveries in theoretical physics, by Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr, among others, were proving to have a profound effect on previously Newtonian conceptions of the universe, which contemplated stability and mechanical order.

The founder of the Futurist movement, the wealthy poet and sometime resident of Paris, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, had evidently also been considerably influenced by the 1896 performances in that city of the play Ubu Roi, by the poet and cycling enthusiast Alfred Jarry. The first ten minutes of the play consisted of Jarry, in white face, sipping from a glass, and eventually announcing, "The action … takes place in Poland, that is to say, nowhere." Finally the actor playing the title character appears and intones the opening dialogue of the play: "Merdre." Despite the coy addition of an additional "r," pandemonium and violence immediately ensued.

Marinetti had authored "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism." Marinetti's Manifesto, which appeared on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro on February 20, 1909, included a paean to "the anarchist's destructive gesture" and "the fine ideas that kill."

"There is no more beauty except in strife," wrote Marinetti. "No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces to reduce and prostrate them before men."

The earliest of the Futurist composers was Francesco Balilla Pratella, an associate of Marinetti's. Pratella, a formally trained and award-winning composer born in 1880, penned several manifestos of his own, in which he railed against "the academicism of the conservatories, the impotence of Italian composers in the face of symphonic form, and their banal belief in the virtues of bel canto." Pratella directed his most withering criticism at the Italian opera establishment, "that heavy and suffocating crop of our nation," which he alleged was nourished by a publishing mafia, and was responsible for the "base, rickety and vulgar operas of Giacomo Puccini and Umberto Giordano."

Yet Pratella's musical career was less successful than his Futurist polemics, and the most celebrated, and perhaps most disappointing event of his career occurred at the premiere of his Musica futura for orchestra, an otherwise unremarkable, repetitive assemblage of whole-tones. While achieving the desired restlessness among the patrons at Rome's Teatro Costanzi in February, 1913, it is recorded that Pratella, in the midst of the tumult, rushed backstage to tell Marinetti that "half the orchestra had disappeared," only to be informed that the piece had in fact ended five minutes earlier.

A more successful and influential Futurist "composer" (although he was primarily a painter) was Luigi Russolo. Inspired by Pratella's Teatro Costanzi debacle, Russolo penned his own Manifesto, The Art of Noises. In it, Russolo explained that throughout the development of industrial machinery in the 19th century, "noise was born," and that noise had come to "reign supreme over the sensibility of men."

Dissatisfied with what he considered the limited arsenal of traditional instruments, Russolo set about designing and building a series of "noise intoners," rectangular wooden boxes containing various motors, operated by cranking handles and amplified by cone-shaped metal speakers fitted to one side. Russolo organized his instruments based on four basic categories of noise: "Exploders, Cracklers, Buzzers, and Scrapers," and set about preparing for the first public performance of three original compositions, The Awakening of a City, Luncheon on the Kursaal Terrace, and Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes, on April 21, 1914, in Milan.

Marinetti staged a dry run at his Milan estate the preceding August, which was attended by various luminaries, among them Igor Stravinsky, who was said to have "leapt from the divan like an exploding bedspring with a whistle of overjoyed excitement" at the sound of one of Russolo's "Cracklers."

At the rehearsal for the premiere, the police arrived and attempted to cancel the festivities on the grounds that it would create a disturbance, which undoubtedly was Russolo's primary intention. But the concert went ahead as scheduled thanks to the intervention of two Italian parliamentarians with whom Marinetti was acquainted. During the concert, Russolo was arrested for punching an unsympathetic journalist.

Marinetti, satisfied with the general outrage engendered by the cacophonous premiere, likened the demonstration of the new instruments to an incredulous public to "showing the first steam engine to a herd of cows." Afterwards, Russolo and company prepared to take London by storm, and a series of concerts were scheduled for June of 1914. The Times reviewed the English premiere in typically understated fashion: "Weird funnel shaped instruments … resembled the sounds heard in the rigging of a channel-steamer during a bad crossing, and it was perhaps unwise of the players — or should we call them 'noisicians'? — to proceed with their second piece … after the pathetic cries of 'no more' which greeted them from all the excited quarters of the auditorium."

However, the subsequent concerts in the series were greeted with increasing levels of enthusiasm, and even warm applause. This eventual public acceptance may have partially accounted for the demise of Russolo's musical career, after which he returned to painting and philosophy. A disciple of Russolo, Franco Casavola, staged several concerts during the 1920s in Paris using Russolo's machines, which, although inspiring the requisite controversy, nonetheless impressed several leading composers of the day, including Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Edgard Varese, who attempted to fit the noise intoners with a keyboard.

Part 2 ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My favorite post so far! (It displaced a previous favorite.)